of The Tablet's first edition
of our political faith
THERE is something, we are inclined to think, in our English habits of mind, which leads us habitually to form an undue estimate of the importance and value of political institutions. Laws certainly can accomplish much; but in England, from the time of Magna Charta down to the Reform Bill, it has always been the fashion of our countrymen to imagine that every political and social disorder has its legal remedy, to attach themselves heart and soul to some proposed measure which appears calculated to remove the disorder, to struggle for it with the utmost perseverance till it has become the law of the land, to conceive the highest faith in the omnipotence of this legal remedy, to expect little less than miracles from its instant operation, and finally, when these hopes are disappointed, to vent no small portion of spleen against some unhappy culprit or other, to whose evil machinations and wicked schemes the failure of the magnificent experiment is owing. We are far from quarrelling with this English tendency of ours altogether. It is admirable in its connexion with our habits of order, of legal regularity, of respect for law; but like every peculiarity of character when pushed a little too far it renders us liable to mistakes and delusions, which it is of some importance to guard against.
Who can forget the glorious years of 1831-32. The zeal, the enthusiasm, the boundless hopes, the glowing expectations of that Reform struggle? There had been grievous disorders in past years - over taxation, dear corn, Swing burnings, a general aspect of insubordination, of gloom and dissatisfaction. But the moment the Reform Bill was announced, and its merits had been set forth a little by discussion, it seemed as if a universal medicine had been discovered. Every separate grievance found its removal in that one great remedy; and it was expected that this glorious Bill would be the parent of an almost endless and immortal progeny of healing and restoring measures.
From 1832 to the present time, the new remedies have been applied. Many of the most glaring abuses have been removed. A series of changes the most vast and extensive that ever, perhaps, in a civilized community, were brought about before, without bloodshed or convulsion, has been made in that interval. These experiments too have been tried with almost every chance in their favour. The advocates of organic change, deliberately and on the most mature reflection, constructed a measure of representative reform, which they were fortunate enough to carry into effect substantially without alteration. Under the new system they commenced their proceedings with an overwhelming majority in their favour in the country and in the House of Commons, and with a personal popularity greater than has in our time ever fallen to the share of any body of statesmen. Thanks to the pacific policy, and to the watchfulness and unremitting assiduity of Lord Palmerston, they have been preserved throughout a perilous conjuncture, from all outward disturbing circumstances. Their course of policy too has had the advantage of being carried into execution, not by enthusiasts run mad, but by cool and wary men, who have weighed every measure; who have calculated every step with great deliberation; who have based their proposed alterations on a series of investigations into our social and commercial state, more extensive than was ever furnished for the guidance of any English ministers before; who have moreover had the inestimable advantage of able, intelligent, and cultivated minds of considerable administrative talent, to superintend their reforms, and to carry them safely into effect. They have had, we well know, great difficulties to contend with; but considering the vast changes over which they have presided, we cannot but consider the circumstances by which they have been surrounded as pre-eminently favourable to the success of their experiment. Ten years have since elapsed. The large majority with which they started has dwindled down to a measuring cast. Their budget of medicines (for England at least) is exhausted. The experiment, if not complete in all its parts, has yet been substantially and fairly tried; and now comes the question. Are the great evils which a discerning eye might have seen in our condition in 1830 removed - we will not say wholly - but substantially? Is the physical condition of the people improved? Is there more enjoyment of the outward blessings of life than before? Is the moral condition of society improved? Are the lower orders more devout, more moral, more patient, more resigned - less inclined to fly out into wild and extravagant courses when the wolf of famine is at the door, or less disposed in the hour of prosperity to seek security against the day of evil, by following the foolish counsels of blind leaders of the blind?
For our parts we believe most firmly that the greatest benefit we have derived from the changes of the last ten years is this, that the middle classes are now less inclined than formerly to quarrel openly with the institutions of the country and to look for relief to extensive political changes. We believe that the late reforms have most of them been good in themselves, and are measures which ought to have been passed; but we still ask, in which respect, except that the rage for political changes has somewhat subsided, are we better now than we were ten years ago? The great evil, then as now, was the ill-suppressed distrust of the higher for the lower, and of the lower for the higher classes, - the disruption of the healthful unity of society into various discordant interests - the animosity of class against class - the insubordination - the fierce jealousy of authority, the unbridled disposition to question and call into contempt the very foundations of our social system. These things ten years ago manifested themselves in Swing burnings - of late in Chartist riots. This great, this profound, this pressing evil still remains to be cured. In 1830 the glaring abuses of many parts of our political institutions covered this dangerous disorder with a veil, and disposed us to look for a perfect remedy to political reforms. Now the political reforms have been effected, and the evil remains as gigantic as ever. The veil which covered it has been removed. It stands exposed in all its rank and naked deformity, as if to remind us that the social disorders of our time are of a kind which the art of the legislator can hardly touch, and which require the application of more potent remedies than it lies within his function to administer.
What, then, it may be asked, remains to be done, if the legislator here is powerless. Is he to abdicate his functions? Are reforms to cease? Are abuses to be allowed to accumulate? Are grievances to be unredressed? Are the peculiar wants of the age to pass wholly unprovided for? By no means. All these things will and must be done; but it ought to be seen and admitted that when the legislator has been most successful, he has done little more than keep the ground clear for the moral and spiritual teacher to pass over and plant it with the seeds of eternal life.
We avow, then, in our opinion that legislative reforms and enactments in any higher sphere than that of police are very necessary to remove obstructions, and very powerless to effect much positive good. We believe that many necessary reforms have been effected, and that many more remain to be accomplished. But the comparatively low estimate we form of the good that can flow from them, inclines us to examine every proposed form with caution, to avoid all rash and wholesale experiments which disturb and convulse rather than clear the way, and (we hope) disposes us not to be seized with vehement, undiscriminating, and unfounded admiration of the measures of our political friends, or vehement, undiscriminating, and unfounded hostility to the measures of our political opponents.
At the same time in making this brief confession of our political faith, we desire not to be understood, as if our opinions were not firmly fixed or warmly entertained. It is true, we are not the blind partisans of any body of statesmen, but between the two political parties of the present day, we have no hesitation in professing our frank and loyal adherence to the present Government. We should be disposed to adopt this course, if it were only from considerations of gratitude for services rendered - a gratitude which is due to them from all who hold in estimation, and who have benefitted by the principles of toleration of which they have been the chief advocates. We are not of the number of those rigid and abstract politicians who think that political allegiance and loyalty to the heads of parties should go for nothing. Undoubtedly it should not stand in the way of great principles, but we hold it to be equally certain that where there is no great difference of principle, the feeling of gratitude should have much weight; for it is of evil omen in public as well as in private life, when men are found on slight pretexts vehemently assailing their benefactors. In avowing this feeling, however, we wish not to be misunderstood. We have no fondness for the miserable wrangling of parties, and we are certainly resolved not to become the undistinguishing panegyrists of either party. But placed as we are, we consider it to be a sort of duty, not to allow the present government to be assailed by unjust attacks without lending our humble help to repel them as we best may.
But we have other grounds on which to justify the course we have chosen. We believe that - speaking of England merely - both the present government, and the same portion of their opponents, entertain very nearly the same opinions as to the constitution of the country; as to the mode of government; as to the spirit in which abuses should be reformed; and as to - the foundation of all government - the structure of our social system. We believe there is very little difference between Lord John Russell and Sir Robert Peel in the desire to maintain the present, or very nearly the present, mixture of aristocracy and democracy; the present mode of exercising the prerogative of the Crown; the present mode of administering and amending the laws; and, in short, the present distribution of political, legislative, and administrative power. Both of them, like almost all our statesmen of any political influence, are attached to the Anglican establishment, and are desirous to maintain it in a certain degree of pre-eminence over the Catholic Church; and the sects which the Establishment has brought forth; and both, we believe, are unwilling to accomplish this end, by injuring or insulting those who differ from them in opinion on religious matters. If the matter rested here, there would not be must to choose between the two, on the score of principle. On many points we should agree with both, and we should from both dissent mainly on one point, which it is not now needful to enter on. Even then we should give our support to the party to whose exertions the triumph of the principles of toleration and justice is owing, rather than to the party on whose acceptance they have been forced. But in addition to this, we have to consider that a large portion of Sir Robert Peel's followers are not sane. Speaking still of England alone, many of them are possessed by a fanaticism so deep and so deadly, that if they were allowed a free course for the practical enforcement of their opinions, the peace of the empire could not be safely entrusted to them for one single hour. Their opinions are a strange medley of truth and falsehood, of sense and nonsense, of maxims borrowed, with little judgment, from other times and other systems than their own, and therefore harmonising neither with these times nor with their own systems. Fanatical without religion, unbending in their purposes, but unscrupulous in their means, and capable of waiving their principles for a time in order to secure their ultimate more sure triumph, restless, meddling, rash, heedless and impatient - we firmly believe that if a merciful Providence had not built up a barrier between them and the attainment of their hopes, they would govern England so as to keep it in ceaseless agitation for a quarter of a century, and end by plunging it into civil war. That men like these should be placed in a position which would give them any influence on the Government is not to be endured for a moment, if by any means it can be prevented. We would join heart, hand, and pen to rescue this country from the degradation and the torture of being ruled by that wretched faction which in England has made hateful the designation of Ultra-Tory, and in Ireland has consigned to eternal infamy the name of Orangeman.
On the subject of Irish politics it is difficult to speak with moderation. Every reason that exists for supporting the present Ministry applies with tenfold force to that ill-governed country. Gratitude, policy, love of concord, hatred of civil war, - all combine to render it an imperative duty to support in office the men who stand between us and an agitation of the most fearful and pernicious character. We are no repealers - we state it unequivocally; but we look upon the cry of Repeal to be most natural for the inhabitants of a country which has been governed with such fatal disregard of all the plainest rules of justice and prudence. It excites in us no wonder to see the facilities with which all Ireland is roused by the faintest whisper of the word Repeal. We repeat that we are no repealers - we do not believe it to be well for the interests of the remainder of the empire. We know what may be said in favour of it; Absenteeism - the strengthening of the hands of the Orangemen of the North by the aid of their brother bigots in England - and the rest. All this is the dark side of the Union-picture. But we think that no impartial person, who considered the change which late years have introduced into the character of our Irish legislation, the immense stride that has been made from the more than Orange barbarities - if that be conceivable - of the last century, to the mild and moderate injustice of the present day, can hesitate in believing that the troubled waters will work themselves pure; that patience (Heaven knows the Irish have been patient hitherto) - a continuance of patience - moderation, and firmness, will suffice for the accomplishment of what remains, without giving up the country to the horrors of civil war - the inevitable result of any serious attempt to obtain the repeal of the Union.
We have no space to enter in detail upon other matters connected with Irish Politics. We are heartily resolved to support every measure that can tend to ensure what has been so long systematically refused, - Justice to Ireland; and to oppose to the utmost of our power all those vile and insidious schemes, under whatever dishonest pretence of purity and reform they may be introduced, the tendency of which is to re-establish under new forms, but with the old spirit, the coarse, the sordid, the brutal domination of the Orangemen.
There are two subjects of Irish Politics which are marked for discussion in the House of Commons in the ensuing week, upon which we should have been glad to enter at length, if our opening address had not unavoidably occupied so much of our space. The first is, the Registration Bill of Lord Stanley, which has been so fully and so ably discussed, that perhaps little that is new remains to be said upon it. We confidently anticipate that the disgraceful apathy which has allowed this iniquitous scheme to find its way into committee, does not continue, and that the first moment of its appearance in committee will be the last of its existence. We know no measure that has been introduced of late years which, if passed into a law, would make so many converts to the cause of Repeal. We have not the least doubt that it would have that effect upon many English liberals. The second subject to which we have alluded is, the grant - the "too scanty" grant, as Lord Morpeth well termed it last year - to Maynooth College. We may have occasion to return to this subject next week. The grant, such as it is, is safe for the present. Meanwhile, we may ask Lord Morpeth, whether it would not be well to act upon the opinion he expressed last year. The grant is "too scanty". Why is it not increased?